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Using a credit card comes with plenty of advantages, including the potential for rewards and some major cardholder perks. Some credit cards even give new cardholders 0 percent APR on purchases or balance transfers for a limited time, and all credit cards give consumers the chance to build their credit history up, and thus, increase their credit scores.
But experts agree there are plenty of pitfalls to be aware of when it comes to credit cards. And you do have to follow some rules to get the most out of them. For example, pay your credit card bill early or on time and avoid racking up debt you can’t afford to pay off.
There are also some tips you can follow to make sure you get the right type of card in the first place. If you’re eager to get the most out of your credit card this year or avoid the biggest downsides involved in paying with plastic, here are some expert credit card tips.
Pick your own payment due date
Some credit cards let you pick your own due date from the start, though any card issuer might let you move your credit card due date if you ask. Either way, moving all your due dates to around the same time of the month can be useful if you want to make sure you can always make your payment, says credit card expert Jason Steele.
Steele says this is especially important if you juggle a lot of different credit cards. Not only can you move your due dates so they align, it can also make sense to set your credit cards up for automatic payments each month as well.
With this strategy, all your credit card bills are due at the same time (such as right after payday). Even if you fail to log into your account and pay them manually, your automatic payments will kick in. Check in advance to make sure you have the cash to cover all your bills ahead of time, says Steele.
Try a secured credit card if you don’t get approved
Many consumers apply for unsecured credit cards and can’t seem to get approved, yet they don’t know another option exists. A secured credit card can be a decent option for building credit if you cannot get approved for a credit card otherwise. Keep in mind that secured credit cards require a cash deposit to get started, though you’ll get your deposit back if you close or upgrade your account in good standing.
El recommends using the “candy bar method” to build credit with a secured card. With this strategy, you would only use your new secured card once or twice per month to buy a candy bar. After you charge a candy bar to your card, you would head home and pay your bill right away.
“This shows the lender that you are using your credit and that you pay your bills on time,” he says. He also suggests that, if you do this for a year, you may build up your credit score enough to where you can get approved for an unsecured credit card.
Be wary of annual fees
Financial wellness engineer Kassandra Dasent says a good credit card isn’t just about rewards; it should be affordable, too. Before you pay an annual fee on a credit card, Dasent suggests digging deeper to figure out how else the card can help you spend less, such as fee credits for Global Entry or TSA Precheck, annual travel credits or special discounts.
If you find you’re paying an annual fee for perks you’re not really using, this may be the year to downgrade or cancel your card and switch to a credit card with no annual fee.
Set up fraud alerts
With identity theft and other types of fraud on the rise, it’s smart to be proactive with your finances. Credit expert John Ulzheimer, formerly of FICO and Equifax, says you should take advantage of the technology offered by your credit card issuer and set up mobile alerts if you can.
Ulzheimer says that mobile alerts can send you a text or email when a purchase is made with your card, a payment has been made or your payment is due.
“Tracking your usage via text and email will guarantee that, if your card information has been compromised, you’ll know in real time when a fraudster attempts to use the information illegally,” says Ulzheimer.
While credit cards come with zero liability protection, letting your card issuer know about fraudulent charges sooner can ensure your card is canceled quickly and a new one is on the way.
Avoid foreign transaction fees
Financial advice expert Mark Reyes from Albert reminds consumers they don’t have to pay foreign fees if they want to pay with plastic abroad. Many travel credit cards waive foreign transaction fees altogether, so all you have to do is sign up for one before your trip.
What are the best travel credit cards with no foreign transaction fees? Reyes lists the Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card and the Capital One VentureOne Credit Card as his top picks.
Only use credit with a plan (and a budget)
Brad Calhoun, president and CEO of Teachers Federal Credit Union in New York, says families need to be careful about not overspending.
“Credit card debt is one of the top financial burdens facing our members,” he says.
For that reason, Calhoun suggests setting a budget for spending, saving and paying down credit card debt before it gets out of hand.
If you’re already stuck with credit card debt, you can also consider a balance transfer credit card with a lower interest rate or even an introductory 0 percent APR. Alternatively, Calhoun suggests taking out a personal loan that lets you consolidate and pay down debt with a fixed interest rate and a fixed monthly payment.
Maximize rewards and welcome offers
Finally, savings expert Andrea Woroch says you should maximize rewards on all your spending, even if that means picking up a new credit card from time to time.
Consider using cash back portals when you shop, which allow you to “double dip,” she says. As an example, Woroch says you can earn even more rewards on every credit card purchase by linking your card to Dosh.
“This free cash back app automatically rewards you with extra money back every time you use your linked card at one of their partner retailers including Walmart, Instacart and Sephora,” she says, at which point the money is deposited to your digital wallet until you redeem via PayPal.
Additionally, take advantage of sign-up bonuses, she says. “You can get free money or extra points just for opening a new card as long as you spend a certain amount within the first few months of getting the new card.”
For example, Woroch points out that the Chase Freedom Flex℠ offers $200 back when you spend $500 in the first three months of account opening.
The bottom line
At the most basic level, using credit cards responsibly will grow your credit score, which will help you when you’re looking to finance a huge purchase like a house or a car. Beyond that, you can also earn rewards and take advantage of card perks. Whatever you hope to achieve with a credit card, you have to start with the basics: keep your card balances low and pay your bill in full and on time.